Science Matters Again

State tests to show if students learned subject
By SHIRIN PARSAVAND | The Press-Enterprise |

Science is getting short shrift in many California classrooms.

Elementary schools have been spending more time on math and reading lessons to prepare students for standardized tests, leaving less time for other subjects.

That might be starting to change because children must learn about topics such as magnetism and molecules for new state science tests.

But science still is not getting enough attention, particularly in the early grades, some teachers and experts say.

Results of the fifth-grade test, the first of the state's new science tests, are not encouraging.

In 2005, 28 percent of fifth-grade students scored proficient or above, up 4 percentage points from the previous year. The state today will release scores from this year's standards tests, which also include science exams in eighth and 10th grades.

Close to 1.5 million students took the science tests this year in the three grades. California gave its new fifth-grade test for the first time in 2004 and added eighth- and 10th-grade tests this year.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act includes punishments for schools that lag in English and math, but doesn't look at science in determining whether schools are up to par. That could change when the law comes up for renewal in 2007.

Science experts say children miss out when they don't get enough science instruction in the early grades.

Some school administrators say that children can't learn science anyway without a foundation in reading and math.

More science lessons are showing up in elementary schools, mainly in fourth and fifth grades rather than the lower grades, said Christine Bertrand, executive director of the California Science Teachers Association.

"There are many schools where teachers are told, 'Do not teach science because we need to get our reading scores up,' " Bertrand said.

That is a shame, she said, because learning science basics early helps students as they encounter more complex ideas.

A survey released last March by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Education Policy, found 71 percent of 299 school districts cut time in at least one subject in elementary schools to spend more time on reading and math.

California gives elementary schools guidance on how much time to spend on English and math, and requires them to spend 200 minutes every two weeks on physical education. Schools are on their own in deciding how much time to spend on other subjects.

Some districts set their own guidelines.

The Corona-Norco Unified School District, Riverside County's largest, expects elementary school teachers to spend a half hour a day on science, on average. Fontana Unified School District calls for 40 minutes three times a week in fourth and fifth grades.


The California Standards Tests in Science are given in fifth, eighth and 10th grades. They are based on the state's science standards for fourth and fifth grades, eighth grade physical science and middle school and high school biology.


Elements and their combinations account for all types of matter.

Electricity and magnetism are related effects with useful applications.

All organisms need energy and matter to live and grow.


The velocity of an object is the rate of change of its position.

Each of the more than 100 elements of matter has distinct properties and a distinct atomic structure. All forms of matter are composed of one or more of the elements.

The structure and composition of the universe can be learned from studying stars and galaxies and their evolution.


All living organisms are composed of cells, whose details usually are visible only through a microscope.

A typical cell of any organism contains genetic instructions that specify its traits. Those traits may be modified by environmental influences.

Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations.

Source: California Department of Education

Students must know how to read to learn other subjects, and math is integral to science, Inland school administrators said. Still, they acknowledge teachers often don't think they have enough time to get through everything else they're expected to cover.

"There's a lot of frustration at all the sites with the fact that there isn't enough time in the day to do justice to all the other subjects," said Katherine Wright, deputy superintendent for the Riverside-based Alvord Unified School District. Alvord tells its elementary schools to set aside an hour for social studies and science, combined, each week.

Ninth-grader Ashley daCosta can recall class science projects in her elementary school in the Riverside-area Jurupa Unified School District, such as seeing whether an egg would float in a mixture of salt and vinegar.

Ashley, 14, who has competed at the state science fair and now wants to be a surgeon, said her class spent a couple hours a week in science starting in fourth grade.

"I think it got me more interested (in science)," she said.

Several Inland school administrators said they are trying to make sure students learn about science. Teachers can use science texts for nonfiction reading, and reading charts or plotting graphs can count as math and science instruction, they said.

Science education experts don't object to combining reading and science instruction, but they note that it's not enough. Students need time to carry out experiments, too.

"What you really want kids to learn from science is what constitutes scientific evidence, scientific arguments. How do scientists think? How do they do their work?" said Janice Earle, senior program director in education and human resources at the National Science Foundation.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires science tests in three grades by the 2007-08 school year.

To comply with the law, California gave its new fifth-grade test for the first time in 2004, and added eighth- and 10th-grade tests this year.

The law focused initially on reading and math, because many states did not have annual tests in place in these subjects in third through eighth grades, said Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department.

More Science Time

Some schools are managing to fit in more time for science.

Carol Hall, a fourth-grade teacher at Alvord's Terrace Elementary School in Riverside said teachers there increased science instruction a few years ago because of the test. She's spending at least a half hour a day on science.

Other teachers said there simply isn't time to cover everything. At Park Hill Elementary School in San Jacinto last year, fourth-grade teacher Keri Thomas managed to get through lessons on rocks and minerals and the food cycle, and found time to let students dissect owl pellets to see what the owls ate. She wound up skipping electricity and magnetism, though.

"We have very little time at the end of the day to squeeze in science and social studies and P.E. (physical education)," Thomas said.

Middle and high school teachers don't face that dilemma, since science teachers have students for a dedicated period each day.

The new eighth-grade test adds some pressure on science teachers, but at least it only focuses on eighth-grade material, said Christina Fisher, a science teacher at Raney Intermediate School in Corona. She had students keep journals last year to reinforce the fundamental ideas on the test.

Her class isn't mainly about memorization, though. Students learn by doing, whether it's mixing baking soda and vinegar to understand gases or squishing moistened corn starch to see the differences between solids and liquids.

"If you're only making sure you're covering the standards, kids are going to be bored," she said.

Reach Shirin Parsavand at 951-893-2109 or

SAMPLE TEST questions

California fifth, eighth and 10th graders now must take tests that measure their knowledge of state science standards. Here are five questions from the fifth-grade test:

1. Which action will result in a product with new chemical properties?

A. Shredding a newspaper

B. Breaking a mirror

C. Cutting wood

D. Popping popcorn

2. Sterling silver is a combination of silver and copper. Which of the following is also a combination of two or more metals?

A. Aluminum

B. Lead

C. Gold

D. Brass

3. Which best describes a parallel circuit?

A. Electricity flows along one pathway.

B. The flow of electricity comes from one source.

C. Electricity flows along more than one pathway.

D. The flow of electricity comes from more than one source.

4. Which of the following best explains how stems transport water to other parts of the plant?

A. Through a chemical called chlorophyll

B. By using photosynthesis

C. Through a system of tubes

D. By converting water to food

5. Which of the following questions is testable in a scientific investigation?

A. Are dogs better pets than cats?

B. Are dogs happy when they are walked?

C. Are cats more active at night than during the day?

D. Are cats easier to take care of than dogs?

Answers: 1. D; 2. D; 3. C.; 4. C; 5. C



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